‘History hovering’ over Djokovic as Grand Slam record beckons

This combination of files pictures created on 9 June 2023 shows Norway's Casper Ruud and Serbia's Novak Djokovic, the finalists of the men's single's event of the French Open 2023AFP

Novak Djokovic admits “history is hovering” over him as he takes on Casper Ruud in the French Open final on Sunday with a men’s record 23rd Grand Slam title tantalisingly close.

The 36-year-old Serb can set numerous landmarks in what will be his seventh championship match at Roland Garros.

As well as breaking the 22-Slam tie he shares with Rafael Nadal, he can become both the tournament’s oldest champion and the only man to win all four majors on at least three occasions.

This combination of file photographs created on 30 May, 2022, shows (L) Serbia's Novak Djokovic and (R) Spain's Rafael Nadal

In the women’s game, only Margaret Court, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams can make a similar boast.

“The only thing I can say is that I’m very focused. History is always something that’s hovering over me,” said Djokovic, the 2016 and 2021 winner in Paris and now the oldest finalist in 93 years.

Djokovic, playing his 34th Grand Slam final, can also return to the world number one ranking with victory over Ruud, replacing Carlos Alcaraz, the man he defeated in the semi-finals.

Victory on Sunday would place him once again halfway to an historic calendar Grand Slam, a sweep of all four majors in the same year which has only ever been achieved by two men.

Rod Laver accomplished it twice, the last coming in 1969.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic

Djokovic, however, refuses to contemplate such dominance, wary of how the pressure doomed his last bid to pocket all four Slams in the same year when he lost the 2021 US Open final to Daniil Medvedev.

“I’m not thinking about a calendar Slam. I’m thinking really just to win another Grand Slam title here on Sunday, and I’m so close. I know it. I know the feeling,” said Djokovic.

‘Talk about history’

“Experience is on my side, but does it win matches? I don’t think so. I have to be prepared for another long battle, and after the final, if I win, let’s talk about history.”

Ruud was runner-up to Rafael Nadal in the 2022 final before also losing the championship match at the US Open to Alcaraz.

The 24-year-old Norwegian has never defeated Djokovic in four meetings and has yet to win a set.

If that wasn’t intimidating enough, just the presence of Djokovic on the other side of the net presents another challenge.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic

Alcaraz admitted that the tension he felt in facing the Serb for the first time in a Grand Slam match caused the body cramps which torpedoed his hopes in the semi-final.

“Novak is a legend of our sport,” said Alcaraz. “If someone says that he goes onto the court with no nerves playing against Novak, he lies.

“Of course playing a semi-final of a Grand Slam, you have a lot of nerves, but even more facing Novak. That’s the truth.”

As Djokovic eventually cruised to victory in Friday’s semi-final, winning 10 of the last 11 games against an ailing Alcaraz, he was booed for fist-pumping as victory closed in.

However, he is so used to being the pantomime villain of the sport, that it’s become an inspiration.

“I don’t mind. It’s not the first; probably not the last. I’ll just keep winning,” he warned.

‘Novak only human’

Despite Ruud’s desperately poor record against Djokovic, he can point to his prowess on clay.

Since 2020, he has the most wins on the surface with 87, most finals with 12 and nine titles.

On Sunday, the world number four will attempt to make sure that all the pressure sits squarely on the shoulders of Djokovic.

“I think it’s just a matter of not thinking like, I ‘need’ to win this match. This is a word that I try to avoid,” he said.

Alexander Zverev, defeated in straight sets by Ruud in the semi-finals, believes that Djokovic might crack under the weight of expectation.

“If I would have to bet money, maybe I wouldn’t bet on Casper too much. Does he have chances? Yes, he does,” said Zverev after a third successive semi-final loss in Paris.

“But I think it couldn’t be better for Casper. Novak is one of the best players in the world, that’s for sure, but when you’re on the brink of history I think that adds a little bit of pressure.

“You remember the US Open final he had with Medvedev? The pressure, you know, we are all human. Novak is human.”